Budget Airlines: Snag Cheap Tickets But Watch Out for Hidden Fees

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Travelers who are excited about taking those long-awaited trips aren’t nearly as cheery about the rising cost of airfare thanks to fuel costs and inflation in general.

Budget airlines, of course, are impacted too, but there are still many bargains to be had.

For example, Avelo Airlines is charging $72 each way between Wilmington, North Carolina, and Orlando, Florida, in recent months and the same price for Las Vegas to Sonoma, California. If you buy during its frequent “flash sales,” you can take 15% off the price. That makes the fare $61.20, or a little more than $120 for a round trip.

Frontier Airlines is offering $33 flights between Orlando and Philadelphia for February and March of 2024 and $39 flights between Denver and Las Vegas on certain summer weekends.

Breeze Airways has flights between Tampa, Florida, and Charleston, South Carolina, for $39.

“Budget airlines are one of my favorite ways to find cheap travel. I have been able to get really great deals. That’s how I got my $99 flight to Iceland,” said Jen Ruiz, author and blogger for Jen on aJetPlane.com. “People want to spend more money on the destination than how they get there.”

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Budget airlines offer cheap flights, for sure. But you need to be aware of the additional fees and other costs that come with flying in and out of the secondary airports they serve.

“Things like checking your bags, buying your seat, getting your boarding pass — that shoots up the price,” said Scott Keyes, founder of Scott’s Cheap Flights, which hunts airline deals for more than 2 million free and paid subscribers.

Flying on low-cost carriers “can be a very good deal for someone traveling light and if you don’t care what seat you have,” he said.

10 Budget Airlines

Check these 10 budget airlines for lower-priced airfare. Yes, Southwest is a major carrier because it flies to many destinations and doesn’t charge for luggage, but it is considered a budget airline because it offers fewer perks such as first class and meal options.

Defining Budget Airlines

The difference between budget airlines like Allegiant Airlines and legacy carriers like American Airlines has become harder to define in the past 15 years, Keyes said. Since around 2015, legacy airlines have been offering more and more discounted airline tickets, and some are charging for preferable seats or checked bags in order to compete with the low-cost airlines.

Here are three key differences between budget airlines and legacy carriers:

1. Fees

While discount airlines consistently offer lower fares, they may charge for selecting a seat, extra legroom, food, checked bags, carry-on bags and printing boarding passes on your departure date. Legacy airlines include some of those services in the price of the airfare.

2. Airports

Low-cost carriers tend to fly in and out of smaller, less busy airports where they pay less money for using the gates and save on other airport fees. For example, a low-cost airline is more likely to use the Hollywood Burbank Airport instead of Los Angeles International Airport in California, or Concord-Padgett Regional Airport, which is 17 miles from Charlotte Douglas International Airport in North Carolina.

3. Planes

Most discount airlines fly the same size jets used by legacy airlines. In fact, when the COVID-19 pandemic dramatically slashed flights, some traditional airlines sold their planes to discount airlines. But low-cost airlines do fly smaller planes than major airlines. Their planes are safe, though, according to Keyes.

“Flying has gotten remarkably safe. It’s not something I’m personally concerned about with budget airlines,” he said. “I would say the budget airlines’ planes might be a bit older, maybe a little bit dingier and just a little bit more cramped.”

For a short flight, the smaller space is bearable, Keyes said, but it’s more uncomfortable on a long-haul flight.

Again, these distinctions are not hard rules. There are exceptions. Southwest Airlines is considered a discount airline and serves many major airports. It also allows passengers to check two bags for free and there is no charge for carry-on bags.

The Hidden Costs of Budget Airlines

Even if all your travel plans go as planned, flying on a budget airline often means a higher cost of ground transportation to and from the airport if it’s not actually in or just outside the city where you are staying. And if you do have to change the flight for some reason, budget airlines tend to charge higher change fees than legacy carriers. And they may not fly to your desired destination every day.

All airlines have flight cancellations due to weather and low sales, but major airlines usually have more options for getting passengers on alternate flights.

Canceled Flights Burn Time and Money

Low-cost airlines have fewer planes and fly fewer routes compared to major commercial airlines. So when a flight is canceled for weather, mechanical or scheduling reasons, it’s less likely you can be booked on the next flight in an hour or two.

Some budget airlines only fly specific routes certain days of the week. So if your flight home from your vacation is canceled, the airline may not have another one for four days. This disruption can add hundreds or thousands of dollars to your trip if it means more days in hotel rooms and extending rental cars. And, if you absolutely have to get home and book a flight on another airline on short notice that can cost hundreds as well.

Legacy airlines offer more options. Many legacy airlines have also begun offering Basic Economy tickets, with prices comparable to budget airlines, but with its own set of limitations.

“A cancellation isn’t nearly as likely to upend your trip. (Major airlines) have partners…. and agreements. If your trip gets disrupted they can put you on another airline,” Keyes said. “ I might be less inclined to book a (discount airline) flight to Chicago in February when weather constantly disrupts flights. But I might be more likely to get on a (discount airline) flight to Las Vegas or Hawaii in June.”

Additional Fees Add Up

Here’s a look at the add-on fees for an $81 round-trip Allegiant Airlines flight from Boston to Sarasota, Florida. It costs $20 for carry-on bags and $35 to check a piece of luggage if you pay in advance. (It’s $75 if you pay at the airport.) A seat with the most legroom costs $26, while the cheapest middle seat is $11. If you don’t check in with the Allegiant app and need a boarding pass printed, that’s $5.

So, if you pay all the highest fees, that’s an additional $106 each way, or $212, more than double the price of your ticket. If you get by with just a carry-on bag, don’t need boarding passes and take the cheapest seat, you’ll pay $31 each way or $62 in round-trip fees and $143 total for the trip. So read the fine print before you book.

While many major airlines followed the lead of Southwest Airlines and quit charging for flight changes or cancellations during the height of the pandemic, discount airlines were more hesitant to drop their change fees.

Spirit, for example, doesn’t charge if you cancel or change your flight 60 or more days before the departure, but the fee goes from $69 to $119 the closer to takeoff.

Allegiant charges up to $75 in change fees and issues a credit for the rest of the cost of unused travel as long as it’s a week out. The airline offers no credit for flights changed or canceled seven or fewer days from the departure.

And JetBlue doesn’t charge a fee if changes are made online, but calling the airline to modify or cancel a flight costs you $25. It charges $100 for changes on its least expensive fares called Blue Basic.

Getting To and From Remote Airports for those Cheap Flights

If you aren’t relying on friends or rental cars, the cost of an Uber or a Lyft from a remote airport to where you are staying can cut into your savings on the airline tickets.

In Arizona, for example, Phoenix-Mesa Gateway Airport, which more discount airlines serve, is 32 miles from the main Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport. An Uber from Phoenix-Mesa to downtown Phoenix will cost around $50, while a ride from Sky Harbor is about $7. Consider the $43 difference each way plus any surge pricing if you are taking Uber during a busy time of day.

One perk of remote airports, however, is parking costs less. They are also less crowded, so cheap flights can save time if not always money.

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Tips for Flying Budget Airlines

To really get the best deals on budget airlines you should sign up for emails, act quickly and open your mind to unplanned destinations. Also, just because budget airlines are considered “no frills” doesn’t mean you can’t bring your own frills onboard.

Sign Up for Deal Alerts

“Allegiant, Southwest, JetBlue, Spirit, all those domestic budget airlines have different fare sales that happen every four to six weeks,” travel blogger Ruiz said. “Allegiant has a lot of $19 one-way fares and Southwest has $50 flights. That happens all the time when they are trying to sell unsold seats.”

Travelers can sign up with each low-cost airline and get email alerts about cheap flights, with the option to tailor them only to places they want to travel.

Scott’s Cheap Flights regularly searches for deals to your favorite destinations. Free subscribers get searches to a limited number of destinations, while those who pay $49 a year get unlimited destination searches.

Try Budget Airlines in International Destinations

There are many European budget airlines so travelers can easily get to other destinations within the continent.

“If I find a good deal anywhere in the vicinity of where I want to go, I take it,” Ruiz said.

For example, instead of paying $700 to $1,400 to fly round-trip from New York to Paris, snag a $300 round-trip fare to Barcelona instead for half the price. “There’s easy access from Barcelona to Paris and other major cities,” she said.

Try flying budget airlines within the same country, too. “I once flew from Athens, Greece, to Santorini for $9,” Ruiz said.

Snag Deals Quickly to Save Money

When Ruiz sees a great deal to international destinations, she doesn’t take the time to map out the rest of her trip. She buys the flight that gets her across the ocean before it’s sold out, then books the shorter flights to transport her throughout the region.

Deals to look out for include Frontier’s All-You-Can-Fly Pass, which is a one-of-its-kind deal that allows for a year’s worth of flights— with some limitations— for a base price of $599. Its price will go up later in the year, so if Frontier is the airline for you, it’s a hard offer to beat.

Expect More Direct Flights to Fun Places

Because bigger airlines offer more flights, they tend to operate on a hub-and-spoke model with multiple legs and connections to get from point A to B to C to D. Discount airlines with fewer planes focus more on just getting from point A to point B, said Keyes.

“They can be more direct and take less time, depending on where you are going,” he said. “If I’m going to fly to Vegas for the weekend I would spend twice as long on a flight on American,” he said.

Also, since leisure travelers are more sensitive to price than people flying for business, budget airlines cater mostly to that audience, he said.  “You’re going to see more budget airlines flying to travel destinations like Las Vegas, Hawaii or Fort Lauderdale,” he added.

What to Bring on Low-Cost Carriers

Some low-cost carriers charge for blankets, earphones and food. So bring your own snacks and earphones for in flight entertainment, Ruiz advised.

It’s also smart to wear an extra coat or sweater to use as a blanket. Don’t pack it in your carry-on, though, because you need every ounce of space there for clothes to avoid checked baggage fees.

Pros and Cons of Discount Airlines

There are pros and cons for booking a flight on a discount airline. We list some of them here so you can decide if this is the right way for you to travel.

  • They can be much cheaper than larger, so-called “legacy airlines.”
  • ecause they have fewer hubs, they offer many direct flights to regional airports.
  • They fly the same planes as legacy airlines.
  • They are more likely to offer deals and discounts.

  • Discount airlines often charge more fees for carryon bags, luggage and reserving a seat.
  • They often fly in and out of smaller airports up to an hour away from the bigger city that is the desired destination.
  • Beverages and food are limited.
  • When a flight is canceled there are fewer options for alternate flights.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) About Budget Airlines

There are a lot of questions about about discount airlines and we’ve rounded up the answers to those most commonly asked.

What Are the Cheapest Airlines?

Allegiant Air and Spirit seem to have the cheapest flights, but they may not fly to everywhere you want to go since they go to mostly regional airports. And they do not generally fly everyday to those cities. The benefit to many travelers, besides the price, is they alleviate the need for long travel times from major airports if the ultimate destination is a less-populated or rural area.

What is the Cheapest Day to Travel by Air?

Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Saturdays are when people travel the least so the rates are lower. Most folks head out for a weekend trip Thursday or Friday and Return Sunday or Monday. Also business travelers usually hit the skies on Monday as the week begins.

Is It Cheaper to Buy a Plane Ticket at the Last Minute?

No. The best deals and routes get snagged early. Chances are if a flight isn’t selling well, instead of slashing prices, airlines will simply cancel it.

What is the Best Day of the Week to Buy a Flight?

Tuesday. Airlines tend to post new deals each Monday, so by Tuesday many are competing to have the lower priced flights.

Katherine Snow Smith is a freelance writer and editor in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and author of Rules for the Southern Rulebreaker, Missteps & Lessons Learned.